We cut our television and movie heroes a lot of slack. We understand when the good guy bends the rules a bit or takes some liberties with the law in order to achieve a righteous end. Movies and television shows of the seventies and eighties often ended with spectacular chase scenes in which the good guy pursued a nemesis without regard to traffic laws and without regard for property (especially barns, plate glass windows, and wedding cakes, as I recall). If our hero isn’t quite truthful all the time or if he tricks a bad guy, or if he resorts to some unorthodox method of interrogation, that’s okay. It isn’t really bad when the good guy does it in pursuit of good. So we cheer.
Good guys threaten or even mentally torture the bad guys in movies. The writers of these adventures have a good idea of how much we will let our hero get away with. Our villains often meet with extreme misfortune by the show’s end, and our sense of justice is satisfied. A bully is thoroughly humiliated. A crooked businessman or politician goes to jail. Even in Disney movies, bad guys have been driven off cliffs, harpooned, and attacked by hyenas. We have seen truly evil fictional malefactors shot, stabbed, and immolated. They have fallen from airplanes and been sliced by propeller blades, even melted by the Lost Ark. Most of us have seen some truly awful things happen to movie villains. They deserve it.
Of course, in real life we know the scriptwriters can’t protect the innocent in a crazy chase in which cars are driven on sidewalks or down one-way streets, and we make police officers follow rules to protect all of us. In real life, we might often feel that law enforcement or military personnel are hamstrung by unreasonable rules, but we wouldn’t accept a lot of the things we find entertaining onscreen. As much as we like good guys, we need some rules for everyone to live by in a civilized society. The Constitution was written and adopted by men who understood that we need rules for everyone, equal justice under law. To the extent we can manage it, those laws that apply to the poor must apply to the rich. Those that apply to the working class must apply to the political class. Those that apply to those whom we dislike must also apply to those with whom we sympathize under that system.
Now we are transitioning, and we are discarding that radical ideal of equal justice under law. Instead, laws are routinely made and enforced or ignored, depending on the political goals of the powerful. In “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky expressed his belief in this transformation. “To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles. The real arena is corrupt and bloody…[H]e who fears corruption fears life.” Indeed, Mr. Alinsky and his disciples do not fear corruption. Mr. Alinsky also proclaimed, “The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.” His philosophy is repeated in the mantra, “By any means necessary.” It is exemplified by modern politicians who deceive us for the purpose of furthering their agendas and interests and by news organizations or organs of government that enable criminal behavior and foster contempt for law.
Ideological descendants of Alinsky subscribe to the notion that any conduct is justified in pursuit of the greater good. For these, criminality and unethical behavior simply aren’t wrong. Referring to the dozens of times the president promised that the Affordable Care Act would allow Americans to keep their insurance plans and doctors, when the president well knew it would not, Bill Maher asked guests, “Was it worth it?” Honest on this point, Mr. Maher was willing to admit that the president deliberately deceived the electorate. The deception outraged some, but for many, this warranted a resigned shrug. For those faithful to Alinsky’s vision, the deception was necessary and acceptable, for it served the noble promise of socialized medicine.
Few Americans are familiar with Alinsky, and most of us, left or right politically, genuinely want a better country. We want a bastion of freedom or a socialist Utopia or something squishy and undefined but “better.” Most of us understand that lying and cheating and breaking the law are generally wrong. I doubt many of us even privately embrace these words of George Orwell from 1984. “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power… We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” We don’t think of our own desires that way. We want to believe we work for something more noble. Those are not the words of heroes.
Corruption only works if we accept it, and many of us do. But it is unlikely that many of us think of it that way. Most of us, whatever our politics, would like a better country and a better world and look for leaders who we believe will contribute to that. But too many Americans are willing to overlook and even support unethical behavior so long as it serves the “right” interests. If some innocents or “good guys” are collateral damage, well, some of us cut our political heroes a lot of slack. Some don’t want trouble for the “good guy” anymore than we want to see our movie action hero criminally prosecuted for the string of felonies we know he committed to make the movie turn out right. When some of those on the “wrong side” of the political divide are injured or destroyed, well, they deserved it anyway.